IT and Business Alignment – Holly Grail or Fools Gold?


There is a lot of literature out there that talks about the importance of IT and business alignment. If you search for the term at gartner.com you get “about 1700” hits. You can’t go to a conference without it being the topic of at least 1 of the speakers. Nearly every survey of CIO concerns has IT and Business alignment as one of the top concerns. Often IT dedicated websites have whole sections devoted to the topic of alignment. 

So what is alignment anyway? Since there has already been a lot of discussion about alignment rather than making it up here is what reference.com has to say:

Alignment is the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects, or a static orientation of some object or set of objects in relation to others.

Business/IT alignment optimizes the relational mechanisms between the business and IT organization by working on the IT effectiveness of the organization in order to maximise the business value from IT.

So business/IT alignment is important because without alignment it is unlikely that you will be perceived to be investing the organisations money wisely and nor will you be perceived to be adding value. I guess if you boil it down to a single self centered statement for a CIO, if you are not aligned then you’ll probably be looking for a new job soon! 

So if alignment is the mechanism that allows us to “maximise the business value from IT” then alignment it not only important but it is the “holy grail” as what CIO is going to disagree that maximising business value is not the most important outcome of their role?

The problem is that while I agree that maximising the business value from IT is the central mandate for a CIO I believe that the logic supporting alignment as the way of doing this is fatally flawed. Why? Because to believe that alignment is the most important thing requires that you believe that IT and the business are separate objects (alignment is “the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects”). Alignment in a world of unity or an integrated world is nonsensical. Actually, I’ll take this a step further; the fact that we practitioners of IT see ourselves as somehow different from the business in which we operate creates the problem of needing alignment. If we simply changed this belief and replaced it with a belief that IT is the business, or perhaps more correctly, is within the business, then the issue of alignment goes away. 

That’s to simplistic I hear you say? You’re just playing with words? Maybe, but no other function talks so much about the need for alignment as IT does. It’s interesting that while reference.com has a definition for business/IT alignment it doesn’t have a definition for business/[insert name of any department except IT here] alignment. Have you ever heard of business/marketing alignment or business/finance alignment? Now this is not to say there are not issues with silo behaviour and the need to work together within and between other departments but the thought of this being a problem of two independent entities needing to be aligned is a little bizarre.

So, alignment is really fools gold created from a false assumption of separateness. Is there something about IT that makes it special and therefore in need of being separate? Or is it simply arrogance? I believe it’s simply arrogance and the price of our arrogance is the constant need to figure out how to get alignment with “the business”. Put aside this false assumption and work to play your part in making your organisation successful.




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